Saturday, June 13, 2009

Beyond Cokato ELC

Photo by Daniel G DeBlock - Leiturgia Communications Inc.
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We just finished electing Pastor Jon Anderson to another six year term as "bishop" of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I thought I'd try to say something about this, but then realized that some folks couldn't care less. I mean, what is a "bishop" and what is a "synod" and why are Nate, Sarah, John, Nancy and I doing sitting in a room with a few hundred people down here in St. Peter on this beautiful day in June? Shouldn't we be doing something more productive or at least more fun?

Actually, I think this is important... but it will take a while to explain...
As I write, I'm imagining that I'm talking with someone in my town who, like most of us, doesn't know or care much about "bishops" or "church politics." I conclude that knowing about the church beyond our local area is a way of caring for our children and generations to come.
All the churches in Cokato are members of some church association. These "associations" are many times known as denominations. There are hundreds of these associations. There are differences and similarities between them. All of them are dedicated to Jesus Christ, click here for an explanation of Christianity. (The colored words in this blog are links.)

If you are a Christian, chances are that some Christian group that your local church and pastor is a part of counts you as a member* of their denomination. Many of us don't think much about denominations. Most times, we have other reasons for joining a church. Often it's because friends, or family, or friendly neighbors go to that church. Sometimes it's because we have looked around and found a church where we feel a they are blessed. Sometimes it's because the Lord Jesus found us there with his love. Less often, though still very common in our area, we are Lutheran (or Assembly/Baptist/Catholic/E. Free/Methodist... whatever...) because we grew up that way.

What we're doing here at this meeting in St. Peter is "denominational" work--and one of the things we've done so far is to choose, by voting, to invite Pastor Jon Anderson to continue his service to us as a key leader, or a "bishop" of the ELCA, our particular Lutheran denomination.

As I wrote last week, I'm a Lutheran, and glad of it. But our denomination isn't simply identified by the "Lutheran" name. There are varieties of Lutheran church bodies. In and around our town in Minnesota for example, we have the ELCA (which our church is a part of), the AFLC (Good Shepherd belongs to it), the rural Apostolic and Laestadian Lutheran congregations, and, over in Howard Lake LCMS congregation St. James'. Also in that town, St. John's Lutheran is both ELCA and LCMC.

Re-elected Bishop Jon Anderson is an officer and lead pastor in one of these Lutheran denominations, the ELCA. For those of us who are members of local churches that happen to be affiliated with the ELCA, the people, like Jon, who are called as leaders do matter. This is true even though few of us have met him or know his name. The denomination matters too, even though few of us know or care much about it.

But why? It used to be that denominations were the main way that local churches would do things beyond their local area. They would band together to send missionaries and train pastors, produce educational material, feed the poor, etc. And that still happens. At this meeting in St. Peter, we are are being encouraged to learn about, participate in and encourage others be involved in lots of "denominational activities." Many of them are really good, for example, the Book of Faith initiative. You can see other things the denomination does through the Southwestern MN Synod of the ELCA website.

So? Aren't there lots of Christian organizations? Aren't there lots of ways Christians cooperate to do good things? Absolutely! In fact, Christians today cooperate with people of other denominations much more than they used to. Informal networks and friendships in the Dassel-Cokato area often seem more important than these often historic denominations. Lots of our most active Christians don't know much about the "denomination" they are supposedly a part of. Knowing about the denomination seems to be an optional add-on to the normal Christian life.

There is one thing, however, that every active Christian in a local church should know about the "denomination" you're part of--the denomination is the place where church leaders are trained, authorized, supported and held accountable. More than anything else, that's why the denomination matters. Church leaders, including pastors of local churches are enormously influential in the faith-life of the people of the local church and community, and because pastors are influential, so is the organization they are a part of that is beyond your home church.

If you wonder whether learning about the denomination is worth your time or energy, think about how pastors, youth leaders and other church leaders affect your life and faith. Then think about the next generation and the pastors that are being trained in the future. If our children are important, so is the denomination (or whatever professional association "certifies" or "rosters" your pastor.) Changes in church doctrine or leaders that are voted on in large organizations beyond the local church will eventually bring changes in the preaching and worship at church and in what is taught in Sunday school.

So I encourage every active Christian to spend at least a little time getting to know their denomination. It's not always easy, and not always fun, but, like raising kids, it's too important to leave to chance. Too important to ignore.

Jon Anderson is a good man with a great pastor's heart. I'm glad he is our bishop. But still, I ask you to join me in paying attention to what's going on in the wider church, beyond ELC**.

*That is, unless you're part of a house church or a totally independent local church.
**ELC is one of the acronymns for our home church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cokato.

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